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August 22, 2010

Movie Review: The Expendables (2010)

by Corby Kennard

 The Expendables (DVD, 2010) BRAND NEWOn a filthy street in Iraq, a HumVee is blasted by an IED, injuring four soldiers and killing a fifth, burning him beyond all recognition.

During a building sweep, a young man is shot in the back of the head, knocking him to the stairs underneath him. It takes four men to get him down the stairs, slipping in his blood on the way.

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An entire abandoned factory is destroyed rather than letting it fall into the Army's hands, taking away not just a forward post, but the home of a displaced family who built a ramshackle home on the property.

No, these aren't scenes from The Expendables, they are real-life examples of what happened to, and is probably still happening to, soldiers in the Iraqi war. They are detailed in the new book "The Good Soldiers" by Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist David Finkle. It's a sobering look at the kids who were sent to the region in 2007 as part of the Surge that was supposed to end the war.

They start off believing that they have a firm and specific goal in mind; that they are in the best position to accomplish his goal; and that they are indestructible enough to win. As the days and months play out, and as they are killed and wounded and psychologically scarred, they begin to realize their goals aren't so simple or specific, that no one is in a position to attain what little they understand, and they are very much mortal. It's an important but depressing book.

I was full of these troubling thoughts when I stepped into the theater to see The Expendables. Then the theater darkened and the film started. The first scene: a group of Somali pirates on a captured tanker demanding money are threatening to kill their hostages on camera. In the middle of his raging screed, the head pirate notices red dots on his chest and looks up to the edge of the cargo hold. (Why he would allow himself to be trapped in a cargo hold is beyond me, but perhaps Somali pirates aren't good strategists.)

There, silhouetted against the almost-as-dark night sky, are The Expendables, a band of mercenaries led by Sly Stallone. They have the pirates in their sights, and give them the 3 million dollars they demanded for the hostages. But there's a snag, the pirates now want 5 million. Well, that's just not gonna happen. The mercenaries - Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Randy Couture, Jason Statham, and Terry Crews - open fire. Yay! They save the hostages! But there's a snag; Dolph wants to hang a pirate, and that just doesn't work for Sly. So Jet Li fights Dolph, they stop him from being as bad as the bad guys, and they fly home.

Enter Bruce Willis as an "employer" who wants the mercies to dismantle an oppressive regime on a small island nation fronted by Eric Roberts and his henchman Steve Austin. They boss around the nation's General and grow drugs, or something. It's really not important. What's important is that we see a bad guy and a good guy, and we get to root for the good guy, who protects women, and not the bad guy, who water-boards them.

These mercenaries have a clear goal, a clear mission statement, and the ability to succeed. Save the hostages. Be professional. Survive. They have a plan, they stick to it, and they put another check in the bank. They destroyed twenty or thirty pirates, and I cheered them, if not out loud in my head, the whole time. It's exciting to see the action, and it feels great to see the "good guys" win, even if they are being paid to do it.

We watch the news and the reports from the wars and we decry the violence and death we never see. And then we walk into a theater and watch even more violence and death play out right in front of us. And we cheer the good guys and boo the bad guys and enjoy the wanton destruction and blood and bullets. And this, in my opinion, is a great thing. It's a catharsis; it lets us witness, vicariously, the beginning, middle, and end of a "war". We get to have the satisfaction of watching the good guys win, and we get to do it communally. And after reading about the hopelessness of these current wars, or watching it on TV, we need this sort of finite experience that gives us hope that wars can still be won by the good guys and they can still retain their idealism.

Ultimately, The Expendables is the kind of action flick - big, brash, loud and unrelenting - that helps us believe in these concepts again. It may not be a perfect film - it does feel like half of the third act is missing, and Bruce Willis and Ahnuld are cameos - but it's a perfect film for the summer.

NOTE: While writing this, I watched the last combat troops depart Iraq. Now, I'm not saying Sly Stallone had anything to do with it, but what a coincidence … Welcome home, troops.

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